Don’t call Andy Stern a “union boss.””That’s a name from the past,” says the most well-known labor leader in the United States. He is speaking from the Washington headquarters of his boss, the Service Employees International Union. “I feel like ‘a member made good.'”
The dismissal of an outdated label seems to sum up Stern’s views of the labor movement in general. He also has strong views about employer-based health coverage (“a relic of the industrial economy”) and unions’ longstanding allegiance to the Democratic Party (he has a high degree of respect for the staunch Republican Newt Gingrich).
“People appropriately said to unions that we should come into the 21st century and find where people are looking for organizations that solve problems, not create them, and we are trying very hard to do that,” says Stern, who recently outlined his views in a book, Getting America Back on Track: A Country That Works.
Educated in the Ivy League and the son of an attorney, the New Jersey native has developed his reputation by crafting a new image of labor.
Under his leadership, the SEIU, which adopted purple as its color, picked up those who largely were overlooked by unions, such as long-term care workers, janitors and public service employees. Today, it is the largest and fastest-growing union in the country — at 1.8 million members strong. It is the largest union of healthcare workers, of which about 160,000 are nursing home employees.
“We’re leading with a new model, a partnership” with employers, Stern says.
The SEIU’s contemporary approach to unionizing has helped to improve its once-adversarial relationship with companies like nursing home giant Golden Living, formerly Beverly Enterprises.
As a result of the SEIU’s alliance with nursing home employers in California, the Medicaid reimbursement system now encourages employers to pay better wages and benefits. CNAs in the state now make about $11 an hour, says James Gomez, president and CEO of the California Association of Health Facilities.
“Our members are happy where they’re at, compared to where they’ve been,” Gomez says.
Of course, a lot of folks have reason to mistrust Stern – namely, nursing homes themselves. His corporate campaigns – in which his union engages in high-profile public relations drives to pressure facilities to accept unions – are said to be nothing short of merciless.
But even some of his foes say only good things about him.
“I have a high degree of respect for the man,” says attorney Stephen Cabot, who has represented nursing homes in labor fights for decades. “He’s an innovator. He’s creative. I always thought Andy was gutsy. I feel he’s a leader and a leader with a vision, which makes him a tough adversary.”
Those qualities were never more evident than during the summer of 2005, when he followed through with a threat to pull his union (and six others) out of the AFL-CIO, cutting the big group’s membership by 40%.
When he is not on the road visiting members, Stern, 56, says he enjoys relaxing at a summer home in Long Beach Island in New Jersey. Recently divorced, he also relishes the time he spends with his college-aged son, Matt.
As unyielding as Stern sometimes appears to be, he talks openly about struggling with the death of his other child, Cassie. She was just 13 years old when she died of complications from spinal surgery four years ago.
In fact, Stern credits his daughter’s spirit with giving him the courage to make the bold split from the AFL-CIO.
Her picture looks up at him daily from his desk, a constant reminder, he says, that “all I can do to remember her is to do what’s right and not worry about what people are going to think about me.”
1971 – Graduates from the University of Pennsylvania with B.A. in liberal arts
1972 – Takes job as welfare case-worker in Philadelphia. Elected Vine District assistant shop steward for Pennsylvania Social Service Union Local 668
1983 – Named SEIU’s organizing and field services director
1996 – Elected president of SEIU
2004 – Tells AFL-CIO: Change or SEIU will leave
2005 – Leads defection of SEIU and six other unions from AFL-CIO
2006 – Free Press publishes Getting America Back on Track: A Country That Works